When students attend their first guitar lesson most are eagerly expecting a bunch of exercises that will set them on the path to success. The truth is while exercises are definitely important your first lesson should include a large dose of understanding about what makes a successful guitarist. Anyone can do exercises yet only a small percentage of people ever achieve their goals on the guitar and understanding what the successful guitarists do differently will give you an advantage from the very first lesson.
Becoming a proficient guitarist is firstly about establishing the habit of practicing like a proficient guitarist. The difference between the novice and proficient guitarist is deliberate practice. The term ‘deliberate practice’ refers to a style of practice that is all about being aware of your practice as you go through the motions. In other words don’t just play a chord progression but closely analyze how you can improve it. Are your fingers sitting close to the frets? Can you improve the speed at which you move from one chord to any other chord?
Old habits die hard
I think it’s important to point out that establishing a new habit like deliberate practice is no easy task. Whenever we set out to establish a new habit we have to remember that we need to make time by dropping usually another already established habit. For example you may be exchanging your precious relaxation time for guitar practice. In the early stages when you are motivated it seems easy to give up 30 minutes of chill time for guitar practice. Can you hear yourself saying “I’ve had a tough day at work/school and I’m just not in the right mood for guitar practice today so I think I will skip it.” Almost without noticing 3 or 4 days have slipped by and somehow no guitar practice has been done yet on closer inspection the lounge and TV have received their usual daily attention.
What is going on?
Established habits require little if any conscious thought but if we think new habits will just form themselves we will likely be disappointed. You probably can’t even remember the experience of taking a shower on any given day last week but you know you did because it’s a habit. You see your brain automates much of what it can so as to leave you to worry about the events that are not habitual such as finishing a school or work assignment or getting tickets to a concert that are predicted to sell out within hours of going on sale. Because habits run on automatic programs in the background they are hard to erase. Erasing and replacing takes constant awareness and effort.
From 9% to 100% compliance
The question of how to erase and replace is a difficult one but let’s look at a positive example and see if we can then apply it to guitar. In one study using cameras around the wash basins in a hospital doctors were found to only washed their hands a mere 9% of the time. In an effort to change this habit the management at one hospital in California decided to try to improve their hand washing rate by implementing a new strategy. They ended up achieving a 100% compliance rate from staff. An incredible turn around. How did they do it?
A formula for establishing new habits
There were 4 key steps to their winning strategy;
1. Make it easy. They put hand sanitizers all around the hospital.
2. Be supportive. Doctors who were found washing their hands were rewarded with a gift voucher such as a Starbucks voucher.
3. Motivate. Images of live bacteria were displayed around the hospital motivating doctors to act.
4. Repetition and consistency. Habits form when we repeat the action for a period of time especially on a consistent basis.
Let’s apply this to guitar.
1. Make it easy – Keep your guitar on a stand and if possible create a dedicated area for practicing. Have your music on a good quality music stand and everything you need on hand. Its even worth making copies of material you are practicing so it can stay permanently in your practice area while the other copy can go with you to lessons. When your practice material is staring you in the face it makes it very easy. I also suggest you allow sometime each day to make sure your practice area is clean, organized and ready.
2. Be supportive – If possible surround yourself with supportive people. This is where a guitar teacher can make a big difference. Many guitar students think of their guitar teachers simply as providers of knowledge but your teacher plays an important support role as well. In fact this is probably the number one reason you should have a teacher. Of course friends and family are also an important part of your support team.
3. Motivate – Surround yourself with inspiring sights and sounds. Find music that inspires you and try to continue explore new music because you never know what you will find. It only takes one great song to fire you up when you are going through an inspirational dry spell. Images are also very powerful such as posters and videos in your practice room.
4. Repetition and consistency – The first 3 steps will get you thinking about your guitar practice on a daily basis but it’s only when repetition and consistency kick in that you will see the habit take shape. Try to avoid seeing yourself as a failure if you do not reach the 4th step straight away. Keep going back to step 1 until you get it. In most cases if step 4 is not happening it means the first 3 steps need more work.